Fuel Tips: Fuels for a Post-Apocalyptic World

Photograph Courtesy Steve Harvey/Unsplash

Sponsored Content Presented by Sunoco Race Fuels.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. No birthday party. No cheesecake. No jellybean. The big question: How on earth are you going to power your post-apocalyptic death machine?

Gasoline

As the past hundred years have shown, gasoline makes a fine fuel for cars. “Gasoline’s energy density is pretty high,” notes Zachary J. Santner, technical specialist with Sunoco Race Fuel. In very simple terms, this means that gasoline provides a lot of energy relative to its mass. It’s why a tank of gas will take the average car a few hundred miles. 

But gasoline might not be perfect for wandering the Wasteland. Under ideal conditions, its shelf life is somewhat limited–one to two years, max, for peak performance. Gasoline is also rather tricky to refine, especially with limited resources, Santner continues, noting that the same is true for kerosene and Jet A-1 fuel. 

Diesel

“It is currently blended with more biomass than gasoline,” Santner notes. Diesel substitutes can also be relatively easily brewed from biomatter. This could be a strong contender. 

Ethanol

It can be sourced from many kinds of fermentation, but home-distilling alcohol past 95% isn’t easy. “You could surely burn a 95% ethanol/5% water mixture,” Santner says, “but water does cause issues with corrosion and fuel systems.”

Propane, Methane and Other Liquified Petroleums

The short answer, Santner says, is that these all have less energy density than gasoline. A possible refueling source, however, could involve capturing methane released from decomposing organic matter, including that found in landfills. (For a related idea, revisit Bartertown from the third “Mad Max” film.)

Pyrolysis

Heating certain materials in the absence of oxygen–plastics or organics like coal–releases flammable gases that can then be burned for fuel. The Lane Motor Museum’s collection includes a 1938 Citroën converted to run on methane gas derived from heated coal. It can travel about 30 miles on a load of coal. 

Electricity

Another option, assuming you can power your generator and also schlep around batteries. 

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Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
1/27/21 10:12 a.m.

I've always considered what my ride would be for the "after times," but I guess I never considered what I would put in it to keep it running.

lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter)
lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
1/27/21 10:21 a.m.

That picture reminds me of one of the old abandoned gas stations from the movie The Last Chase. It's one that most have probably never seen. It stars Lee Majors and a Porsche 917-10 "clone". Cheesy movie from back in 1981. Go look it up all you car guys......

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/27/21 10:33 a.m.
Colin Wood said:

I've always considered what my ride would be for the "after times," but I guess I never considered what I would put in it to keep it running.

See, exactly. Sure, you have already planned out your DeathMobile, but how will you keep it running? Can't outrun the mutants if you're outta gas. 

ChrisTropea
ChrisTropea Associate Editor
1/27/21 10:50 a.m.

What about a wood powered engine? 

 

Gearheadotaku (Forum Supporter)
Gearheadotaku (Forum Supporter) UltimaDork
1/27/21 10:55 a.m.

3 choices.

1. Find a producing oil well and build a refinery there. (Don't know how, but there must be a low tech way to do this. You probably won't get 100 octane race gas though)

2. Start disilling alcohol, hope you have a good field of grain and sugar cane.

3. Take over a hydroelectric dam. Lots of power for an electric car. Put additional batteries on a trailer for more range.

 

tomtomgt356 (FS)
tomtomgt356 (FS) Reader
1/27/21 11:04 a.m.

Steam power! As long as you have water, you can run on anything that burns!

RevRico
RevRico UltimaDork
1/27/21 11:16 a.m.

Alcohol still or electric. Batteries are easy enough to come by that short of another ice age finding supplies would be easy, solar farms and wind farms can be taken over or even moved to better locations. Anything that grows can be convinced to ferment with fire, water, and time. 

I'd be trying for electric personally, less moving parts to deal with means less drastic means of repair and replacement.

MadScientistMatt
MadScientistMatt UltimaDork
1/27/21 11:18 a.m.

Bicycles tend to get oddly overlooked in postapocalyptic movies and literature, but they seem like they'd be very useful when fuel is hard to come by.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/27/21 1:16 p.m.

In reply to MadScientistMatt :

I was thinking that or a horse. 

Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter)
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
1/27/21 1:18 p.m.

Look at what our Amish neighbors do, and copy that. I see lots of horses, walking, little scooters. If things get really desperate methanol and ethanol aren't THAT hard to make. Probably worth printing the how-to and keeping it in your safe.

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
1/27/21 1:18 p.m.
MadScientistMatt said:

Bicycles tend to get oddly overlooked in postapocalyptic movies and literature, but they seem like they'd be very useful when fuel is hard to come by.

I wouldn't say they are overlooked, I've read many books where bikes were used

alfadriver (Forum Supporter)
alfadriver (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
1/27/21 1:20 p.m.

WRT alcohol- need some special look at the remaining water.  There will always be leftover water no matter how good the normal still is.  So the car has to be robust to having water in it, or you have chemical means to remove the water (it's chemical but based on solids), or you make that special still that can actually produce 100% alcohol (which is not just a massive reflux still- there are some tricks to do more- one still person I know mentions a vacuum system in the process).

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/27/21 1:21 p.m.

Add to the list: longboards and those skateboard/sail kite things. 

chaparral
chaparral Dork
1/27/21 1:25 p.m.

3600 psi natural gas, or methanol produced by the water-gas reaction. 

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
1/27/21 1:30 p.m.
tomtomgt356 (FS) said:

Steam power! As long as you have water, you can run on anything that burns!

This

Wood gas. 

I already have the plans printed and filed somewhere safe. 

I also have several really old engines. Think early 1900. They will burn almost anything and can be repaired with a sledge and a file. 

 

Vajingo
Vajingo Reader
1/27/21 5:34 p.m.

Here's the thing guys... in a gasoline starved world, it's just like madmax. Except they can hear your ICE. And when they hear you... "They" come running... looking for that gasoline. 
 

I'll take my solar powered, 2000w electric bike please. You'll never hear me. If "they" see me, they can't catch me. 

Ian F (Forum Supporter)
Ian F (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
1/28/21 7:32 a.m.

In reply to Vajingo :

Electric bikes are quiet, but not silent.  In a world without as much external noise, they would be heard. 

Even bicycles are not always silent. Fixed gear bikes - very quiet. As are some bikes with silent "clutch" rear hubs (Onyx is a popular brand right now).

In such a world, I would likely spend so much of my time cultivating food (and storing for the winter) that travel would not be a top priority. 

Appleseed
Appleseed MegaDork
1/28/21 8:44 a.m.

Setup carburetor to run on alcohol. Set up still to create alcohol.  Ferment the bodies. Problem solved.

Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter)
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
1/28/21 8:56 a.m.
Vajingo
Vajingo Reader
1/28/21 9:29 a.m.

In reply to Ian F (Forum Supporter) :

Yep. Quiet enough to only be heard when in the vicinity. Allowing someone to get the jump on would be attackers. By the time they hear youf you've already zoomed by, and they, without enough time to react. Whereas an ICE would be heard at least a 1/4 mile away, and attract every miscreant in the 1/4 mile radius. And in order to escape, you would have to turn the car off, or spend a lot of fuel accelerating away.  With an electric bike, you simply pedal down an alley way and easily stash it, and then begin walking about like an innocent bystander. 

jharry3
jharry3 HalfDork
1/28/21 10:25 a.m.

The original settlers of the North American continent used bison dung as fuel for thousands of  years.   

But then the Bluecoats killed almost all the bison...  

GIRTHQUAKE
GIRTHQUAKE Dork
1/28/21 10:32 a.m.

Ammonia could be another idea for your Mad Max fuel; The Haber-Bosch process is complicated for what we're doing here, but Ammonia has no carbon so it cannot foul up and can also be used for cleaning and disinfecting, which will be needed with no society. Alcohol and ethanol would probably be the best tho, since you also get a medical source AND can get drunk on it too!

Otherwise, I'd be e-bike all the way, perhaps small vehicles using salvaged forklift motors. A Brushed DC motor into a bike is dead-simple and the "power" switch could be actuated via altering voltage- there's a guy from Pakistan I know who made his E-bike for free, and his "power switch" was the fan speed element ripped out of a Nissan Truck he found abandoned in a field. For higher tech, lots of forklifts are going AC for power instead of DC to get that sweet Regen, though I'm not sure how many are IPM motors for your E-wasteland rides.

That reminds me, I had an idea for an Environmentalist Mad Max spinoff...

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
1/28/21 11:14 a.m.

Saltwater batteries, you can use the tears of your enemies!

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
1/28/21 12:40 p.m.

Never thought about the noise an engine would make. Assuming the world comes to standstill after the apocalypse, you could probably hear a running engine for miles away.

I'm learning that I am not as prepared for the after times as I thought. I'll stick to Fallout for now.

Rons
Rons HalfDork
1/28/21 6:00 p.m.

Most people here seem to believe this post apocalyptic world will be a utopian paradise. My belief is it will be a dystopian feudal agrarian steam punk hell. 

There won’t be much travel because of the whole agrarian thing and our machines will use electricity because we’ll be using the original elements Earth, Wind, and Fire to obtain usable power.

I’ll leave it at that lest everyone comes to the realization that maybe I think too much.

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
1/28/21 7:20 p.m.
Rons said:

Most people here seem to believe this post apocalyptic world will be a utopian paradise. My belief is it will be a dystopian feudal agrarian steam punk hell. 

There won’t be much travel because of the whole agrarian thing and our machines will use electricity because we’ll be using the original elements Earth, Wind, and Fire to obtain usable power.

I’ll leave it at that lest everyone comes to the realization that maybe I think too much.

Using the tears of your enemies = utopian paradise to you?

Rons
Rons HalfDork
1/28/21 8:09 p.m.

In reply to Antihero (Forum Supporter) :

I only saw most with the utopian paradise, not the wise ones who see the path.

03Panther
03Panther SuperDork
1/28/21 9:00 p.m.
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) said:

Just in case someone needs to print these out:

https://sciencing.com/make-wood-alcohol-through-distillation-7762993.html

https://greenliving.lovetoknow.com/How_to_Make_Ethanol

Filling up my emergency fuel trailer yesterday, and a guy mentioned wood gas... hadn't thought of it in years. You just saved me the time of looking it up!

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
1/28/21 9:04 p.m.
Rons said:

In reply to Antihero (Forum Supporter) :

I only saw most with the utopian paradise, not the wise ones who see the path.

And I didn't even mention biobatteries......

CJ (FS)
CJ (FS) HalfDork
1/29/21 1:21 a.m.

My dad entered high school in Southern California during WWII.  Of course, everything was rationed then, including gas. 

He told me that there were a couple of Model Ts that old guys had built wood gasifiers for.  Dad said they ran... sort of...

Since the T engine had been designed for poor fuel in mind - low compression and low RPM - I guess it was a good choice.

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